Friday, 3 October 2008

Burma's economy: Does sanctions hinder development?

by Mungpi
02 October 2008

New Delhi (Mizzima)- Poverty and the slow-pace of economic development in Burma, which was once known as the 'Rice Bowl' of Southeast Asia, is not the result of the current economic sanctions imposed by western nations but because of the ruling junta's mismanagement and inept economic decision making, said an economic expert.

Sean Turnell, Associate Professor and member of the Burma Economic Watch, at the Economics Department of Macquarie University in Sydney said he disagrees with the Burmese Foreign Minister's statement that sanctions have hindered economic development in Burma.

Nyan Win, in his address to the UN General Assembly in New York on Monday, called for an end to what he described as 'immoral sanctions' against his country, saying sanctions hamper economic development and harm the people.

Nyan Win, in his speech, said sanctions are "unwarranted," and "They are not only unfair but immoral. They are counter-productive and deprive countries of their right to development."

But Sean, a long time observer of Burmese economy, said Burma's economy is hardest hit by the junta's mismanagement and its self-imposed isolation.

"Burma's poverty is not a result of sanctions, but 45 years of extraordinarily inept economic decision making by Burma's military regimes," Sean said in an email to Mizzima.

He added that the regime has self-imposed sanctions by creating an economic environment that makes international investment, in true productive industry, utterly impossible.

The United States and the European Union have recently stepped up sanctions against Burma's military government for its suppression of pro-democracy groups and its refusal to improve the situation of human rights including the release of political prisoners.

However, the Burmese Foreign Minister, in his speech said, for Burma to be able to implement economic development, it needs "unfettered access" to markets, modern technology and investment, which according to him has been deprived to Burma due to the imposition of sanctions.

"The sooner the unjust sanctions are revoked and the barriers removed, the sooner will the country be in a position to become the rice bowl of the region and a reliable source of energy," he added.

Economic development without sanctions?

Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese analyst based in Thailand, said while lifting economic sanctions cannot improve Burma's economy over-night, it will, however, allow space for development in the long-run.

According to him, Burma, which has been isolated for nearly half a century and suffered nearly two decades of economic sanctions, a 'command economy' is prevailing, whereby the ruling generals dictate the economy and provide opportunities only to their cronies.

He said, therefore, lifting sanctions and allowing free flow of direct foreign investments, in the long run, would help open up new space for development as well as create new political space.

He added that economic sanctions, which the opposition group led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi have called for and was imposed by the US and EU, does not encourage political reconciliation in Burma.

The Burmese junta is annoyed with the west because of the sanctions but are even more so on the opposition led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for urging the west to impose sanctions, he said.

"[T]here has been a sore relationship between the junta and the opposition. So, international sanctions are an obstacle to reconciliation," Aung Naing Oo said.

However, he said, unless the junta drops its 'Command Economy', cronyism, and corruption, lifting sanctions will not help in developing the economy.

But Nyo Ohn Myint, the foreign affairs in-charge of the National League for Democracy – Liberated Area (NLD-LA), said sanctions have its causes and effects, but the deteriorating economic situation in Burma is mainly caused by the junta's corruption, nepotism and cronyism.

Nyo Ohn Myint, who closely monitors Burmese economy, said western sanctions does not put on hold the possibility of foreign investment, which mostly are from neighbouring countries including members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

But he said, Burma failed to attract foreign investors due to the lack of political stability, and transparency, which investors see as an unhealthy atmosphere for business deals.

"Despite the sanctions, we see that Burma's bilateral trade with neighbouring countries like India and China are increasing," Nyo Ohn Myint said.

Even with sanctions imposed by US and EU, there are several companies still operating in Burma, Nyo Ohn Myint said, but he added that the junta's failure to demonstrate stability and mismanagement of the economy has slowed down Burma's economic development.

According to Sean, sanctions by any means are "not a full solution" they are, however, useful in an array of strategies.

"Often overlooked is that sanctions can be an avenue, through their progressive lifting, for sponsoring genuine reforms," he added.

Despite the sanctions Burma has several opportunities to implement economic development, Sean said, adding that Burma can still "bring about wholesale reform - especially in the areas of property rights and rational decision-making."

But under the current circumstance corporates and companies are "hardly going to invest in a place where expropriation is a real possibility, where poverty is such that a viable market is barely achievable, and where corruption imposes such high a 'tax' on genuine activity," Sean said.

Focusing on Migrant Life

OCTOBER, 2008 - VOLUME 16 NO.10
The Irrawaddy Magazine

PHOTOGRAPHERS John Hulme and Timothy Syrota have spent four years documenting the lives of Burmese migrants living in the border regions of Thailand, and The Irrawaddy has published much of their work, either as photo essays or to illustrate reports on migrant issues. Hulme and Syrota have put together a selection of their work for their first exhibition, which can be seen at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in Bangkok from October 3 until November 3.

Where Would Burma Be without Suu Kyi?

OCTOBER, 2008 - VOLUME 16 NO.10
The Irrawaddy News

Recent events have raised concerns about Aung San Suu Kyi’s health—and questions about how the pro-democracy movement would cope without her

LET’S imagine a situation: Burma without Aung San Suu Kyi. Undoubtedly, the ruling generals would see this as a dream come true. But for the majority of Burmese, it would come as a great disappointment to lose the leader of the country’s pro-democracy movement.

Aung San Suu Kyi at her Inya Lake home in 1996 - (Photo: Nic Dunlop/Panos)

Suu Kyi may be a prisoner, but she still has immense power. She strikes fear into the hearts of heavily armed men, while giving moral strength to the powerless. She is the hope of the people of Burma, who have struggled to survive under the boot of their military rulers for the past 46 years.

Her recent refusal to receive food deliveries raised serious concerns about her health and worries about the country’s future without her.

According to her lawyer and her doctor—the only two people who were able to meet her during her month-long ordeal, which began in mid-August—Suu Kyi’s protest against her continued unlawful detention had left her thin and malnourished.

It was the first time in two decades that Suu Kyi had subjected herself to a hunger strike. Soon after beginning her first period of house arrest in 1989, she refused food and demanded to be placed in prison alongside her colleagues. After several weeks, she won guarantees that her fellow pro-democracy activists would not be tortured, and ended her protest. Her weight had dropped from 48 kg (106 lbs) to just 40 kg (90 lbs), and she suffered hair loss, impaired vision and a weakened immune system.

At the time, Suu Kyi was still in her early forties. Now she is in her sixties, and the impact on her health has presumably been much greater, even if she merely restricted her intake of food to the barest requirements for survival.

What would happen if Suu Kyi died or became so unhealthy that she couldn’t continue her role as the political leader of Burma’s pro-democracy movement? It is something we need to ask in light of the fact that she has spent 13 of the past 19 years under house arrest, without regular access to proper medical treatment and under immense psychological pressure.

Most people would prefer not to think of Burma’s future without Suu Kyi. Her absence from politics would probably be a death blow to the already weakened democracy struggle, because she has no obvious successor as leader of the movement.

On the other hand, the ruling generals would probably see Suu Kyi’s demise as an end to an era of trouble. After all, she is even now regarded as a threat to their hold on power.

From the generals’ viewpoint, there are many reasons to believe that the future without Suu Kyi would be very bright indeed. For one thing, they would not have to fear a repeat of the non-violent confrontation that she initiated in early 1989, when she called on people to resist unlawful decrees imposed by the junta. The movement continued for months, until July 19, when the regime used an overwhelming show of force to stop a planned Martyrs’ Day march. The next day, Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest for the first time.

Another reason the generals would be happy to see the back of Suu Kyi is that it would probably mean no more electoral upsets like the one the world witnessed in 1990. Despite the regime’s efforts to ensure a victory for the pro-junta party, Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy inflicted a stunning defeat, winning more than 80 percent of seats in parliament. It was Suu Kyi who urged her party to contest the election, despite the fact that she was still under house arrest at the time and not permitted to participate herself. Even within the confines of her home, she showed the generals that she could make life difficult for them.

It was also Suu Kyi who called for a boycott of the National Convention in 1995. She made this decision a few months after being released from six years of house arrest because she deemed the convention convened to draft a new constitution as undemocratic. The generals have never forgiven her for continuing to resist their plans even after they were good enough to give her back her freedom.

In 1998, Suu Kyi once again proved to be a thorn in the side of the generals. That was the year she spearheaded the creation of the Committee Representing the People’s Parliament, a body that directly challenged the junta’s right to rule.

The generals wasted no time in arresting members of the newly formed group.

Since then, Suu Kyi has enjoyed a few brief interludes of relative freedom. Each time, she demonstrated that her immense appeal was in no way diminished by her long absence from the public eye. She campaigned around the country, drawing crowds of thousands eager to hear her speak. Her engaging and courageous speeches inspired hope in the hearts of countless ordinary Burmese—and intense anger among the country’s military rulers, who watched her every move and did everything they could to keep her away from her adoring audiences.

All of these episodes have only served to convince the generals that they need to keep her on a tight rein if they want to carry through their agenda. Last year, they finally succeeded in completing their constitution, which they will use to usher in a new era of military-dominated “democracy” that excludes a democratic opposition. It is doubtful that they would have been able to achieve this long-pursued goal if they hadn’t kept Suu Kyi confined within the walls of her residential compound for the past five years.

Suu Kyi’s reputation as a troublemaker within the military government’s ruling circles has earned her a further—illegal—extension of her current period of house arrest. Although she should have been released in May under Section 10 (b) of the State Protection Act, which only allows for a maximum sentence of five years, she is still in detention.

The regime is now preparing for the next stage in its transition to quasi-civilian rule—the 2010 election, which is intended to undo the damage of the 1990 vote. But in order to reverse the tide of history, the generals know that Suu Kyi must remain detained and silenced.

If Suu Kyi’s health were to fail prior to the election, it would probably deliver the regime the victory that has eluded it for the past two decades. Her death would not spell the end of the democracy movement, but it would leave it greatly weakened.

Although Suu Kyi has spent most of the past two decades almost completely cut off from the outside world, she is still Burma’s single greatest hope for democratic change. She is also a leader who is widely trusted by people of every ethnicity in Burma, and one who is respected by the international community, which will have a major role to play in helping to restore the country’s economy.

She has the rare ability to speak to the generals in a straightforward, unflinching manner. Indeed, her power derives almost entirely from what she calls “plain honesty in politics.” Her courage, dedication and steadfast adherence to the truth have empowered her to speak for the people of Burma in a way that no one else can at this point in the country’s history.

After 46 years under military rule, Burma is very lucky to have someone who can still command such immense power through the sheer force of her convictions. Without her, life would go on, but the country would be impoverished in a way that makes even its current circumstances seem tolerable by comparison.

The Spring before Khin Nyunt’s Fall

OCTOBER, 2008 - VOLUME 16 NO.10
The Irrawaddy News

For a while, the Burmese junta looked like it might be ready to meet the West halfway. The ouster of the regime’s spy chief ended all that

IN early 2000, Maj Aung Lynn Htut began his new assignment as the deputy chief of the Burmese embassy in Washington, DC, with a mission to improve ties with the incoming administration of President George W Bush.

It was not his first time in the US capital. In 1987, the graduate of the elite Defense Services Academy spent three months in Washington receiving training from the CIA.

Then Prime Minister Gen Khin Nyunt waves to the media while heading to a summit in Pagan in 2003. (Photo: AFP)

When he returned to the US in 2000, Aung Lynn Htut served as an officer in the counterintelligence department of the Office of the Chief of Military Intelligence (OCMI). His boss was Lt-Gen Khin Nyunt, secretary 1 of the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and head of the junta’s powerful intelligence apparatus.

Khin Nyunt was also the architect of a series of ceasefire agreements with domestic insurgent groups that had strengthened the regime’s hold on power over the course of the preceding decade.

By the time Bush took office, Khin Nyunt appeared to believe that a d├ętente with the junta’s staunchest international critic was also possible, according to Aung Lynn Htut.

“We waited until Bush came to power and then we started lobbying in DC,” said the former major.

In an extensive interview with The Irrawaddy, Aung Lynn Htut provided an inside look at this pivotal time in recent Burmese history, when the ruling regime seemed to be ready to turn a new page in its relations with the West.

As he revealed, however, it was also a period of intensifying rivalries within the junta.

Before Khin Nyunt could begin his experiment in reshaping ties with the US and other Western countries, he had to get a green light from the SPDC’s top leader, Snr-Gen Than Shwe.

As the strongman who called all the shots, Than Shwe was an inveterate hardliner who did not always take kindly to Khin Nyunt’s conciliatory overtures. But the intelligence chief’s success in sidelining former insurgents had allowed the regime to focus on its war of attrition against democratic forces; so, in a nod to Khin Nyunt’s proven ability to neutralize opponents through guile, Than Shwe gave him the go-ahead to work his magic on Washington.

Aung Lynn Htut’s assignment to Washington was one of the first tentative steps towards ending the regime’s isolation from governments it had long regarded as hostile.

Another part of the charm offensive was the launch of a colorful English-language newspaper, The Myanmar Times, which would present a more sophisticated image of the regime than the stodgy, Stalinistic fare offered by the state-run press.

As a further step, the regime hired DCI Group, a Washington-based lobbying firm, in 2002. The firm was paid US $348,000 to represent the junta, which had been strongly condemned by the US State Department for its human rights record. US Justice Department lobbying records show that DCI worked to “begin a dialogue of political reconciliation” with the regime.

The firm led a PR campaign to burnish the junta’s image, drafting releases praising Burma’s efforts to curb the drug trade and denouncing claims that the regime had used rape as a weapon in its military campaigns against ethnic insurgents.

By this time, the regime was becoming genuinely concerned that Bush’s policy on Burma was getting tougher. “We thought we had to counter it,” said Aung Lynn Htut.

He and his senior officers gathered information about who they could approach to ask for help. Khin Nyunt’s office started to reach out to Burma scholars who were sympathetic to the regime and who disagreed with the US government’s sanctions policy. Disgruntled prominent dissidents were also approached in a bid to persuade them to switch sides.

The regime also invited senior UN officials to come to Burma.

Joseph Verner Reed, the UN undersecretary and special adviser to former UN chief Kofi Annan and now to Ban Ki-moon, arrived in Rangoon to attend an event marking United Nations Day in 2002.

The high-ranking UN official was known to be close to some senior officers of the Burmese regime. Interestingly, he was listed on the board of the U Thant Institute in New York. U Thant, a Burmese, was the UN secretary-general from 1961 to 1971.

In a speech to commemorate the founding of the UN, Khin Nyunt said that Burma had always considered the world body to be of fundamental importance for the preservation of international peace and security and for the promotion of the economic and social development of mankind.

Former intelligence officer Maj Aung Lynn Htut (Photo)

“I wish to express our sincere appreciation and thanks to the United Nations and to the Honorable Under Secretary General Mr Joseph Verner Reed in particular for making this possible,” Khin Nyunt said in his speech, praising his special guest for attending.

But why did Khin Nyunt approach Reed in the first place?

“We gathered information that he didn’t like Aung San Suu Kyi,” Aung Lynn Htut, who acted as a liaison officer between Reed’s office and Khin Nyunt’s, said with a laugh.

In Washington, Burmese intelligence officers knew that it wouldn’t be so easy to find a sympathetic ear. They were up against US-based campaign groups and exiled Burmese activists who had considerable influence in forming US policy on Burma. They realized that it would not be easy to convince State Department officials, let alone Congress and the White House, that the regime was not as reprehensible as it had been portrayed.

Reports of forced labor, child soldiers and systematic rape committed by Burmese troops were thorny issues, and Khin Nyunt and his senior officers who handled foreign affairs realized that it would be an uphill battle.

Nevertheless, Khin Nyunt’s intelligence unit managed to reach a few US State Department officials with its message, including Matthew Daley, then head of the Southeast Asia Department. Daley once said that the US sanctions policy on Burma had failed and was not moving the country in the right direction.

Then, in May 2002, the regime took a bold step by releasing Suu Kyi. The Nobel Peace Prize winner was allowed to go on political organizing trips to the countryside. In return, she agreed to inspect the regime’s development projects.

That same month, despite a visa ban and active US sanctions, senior intelligence officer Maj-Gen Kyaw Thein was given a visa to enter the US to brief some senior government officials on the Burmese regime’s efforts to eradicate illicit opium production.

Meanwhile, as Suu Kyi began to travel around the countryside meeting her supporters, intelligence officers were engaging in behind-the-scenes negotiations with the opposition leader. Maj-Gen Kyaw Win, deputy head of OCMI, his deputy, Brig-Gen Than Htun, and Minister of Home Affairs Col Tin Hlaing were involved in the talks with Suu Kyi.

News of this “secret dialogue” was leaked to then UN Special Envoy Razali Ismail by Foreign Minister Win Aung, a loyal follower of Khin Nyunt. Razali, who played no part in facilitating this dialogue, released this information to the world, which welcomed the first signs of political progress to come out of the country in many years.

The “kinder and gentler” image of the junta was further enhanced by The Myanmar Times, which faithfully propagated the regime’s agenda. The newspaper gave extensive coverage to the regime’s fight against HIV/AIDS and its increased cooperation with the UN, and even highlighted a visit to Burma by the family of U Thant as evidence of a changing political climate.

As all of these developments were unfolding, Khin Nyunt gave briefings to Than Shwe to attempt to persuade the junta’s supreme commander to open up more space for international agencies such as the International Labor Organization and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

In his efforts to convince Than Shwe of the need for greater openness, Khin Nyunt often turned to the senior leader’s deputy, Kyaw Win, for help.

Kyaw Win was a specialist in psychological warfare who had served under Than Shwe since he was a junior officer in the army. It was known that he could freely enter Than Shwe’s office at any time. He often came late at night, offering tea or a massage, to talk about the need to allow more international agencies to operate in Burma and to tackle sensitive issues such as forced labor and the recruitment of child soldiers.

But it wasn’t easy. Than Shwe was stubborn and completely indifferent to the opinions of his foreign critics, said Aung Lynn Htut, who had met the top general on a number of occasions.

“He was a bulldog,” recalled the former major. “He didn’t really care about international pressure.”

On the child soldier issue, for instance, Than Shwe completely dismissed criticism, telling his subordinates, “Don’t worry. In two or three years, these kids will be adults.”

“He didn’t understand that this was a serious issue which we had to deal with at the UN,” said Aung Lynn Htut.

Burmese junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe reviews a guard of honor on Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw in March 2008. (Photo: AFP)

People who have worked with Than Shwe said that he is slow to make up his mind and rarely gives clear yes or no answers to questions, forcing officers to carefully decode his vague replies.

But if Than Shwe often seemed indecisive, he also had very definite ideas about what really mattered as far as world opinion was concerned. To his mind, the regime had no reason to worry about international pressure as long as Burma could maintain good relations with China, India and Russia.

What about the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean)? Aung Lynn Htut said that the senior general didn’t even take the regional grouping into consideration.

Even Thailand—the largest source of foreign investment in the Burmese economy—was powerless to influence the regime. Indeed, Than Shwe always insisted that Thailand’s dependence on Burmese gas and border trade gave the junta significant sway over Thai politicians.

But Than Shwe was not as complacent about other potential challenges to his hold on power. While the intelligence camp was making real headway with its overseas PR offensive, hardliners close to Than Shwe were growing increasingly wary of the influence of two people at home—Suu Kyi and Khin Nyunt.

Suu Kyi was considered the greater immediate threat. Her travels around the country had attracted huge crowds of supporters. The hardliners decided to strike back with a vicious attack on the pro-democracy leader’s entourage as they traveled near Depayin in May 2003. Suu Kyi was arrested and detained soon after the massacre, which claimed the lives of dozens of her followers.

According to Aung Lynn Htut, the intelligence unit, which had been tailing Suu Kyi’s motorcade around the country, had no forewarning of the attack.

“We knew they were planning something, but we didn’t know the real plan,” he said.

Suddenly, all of the regime’s PR gains were erased. The Bush administration stepped up its pressure on the junta and imposed tough new sanctions.

But Than Shwe wasn’t finished. Next he turned his attention to Khin Nyunt.

The senior leader was not alone in his mistrust of the intelligence chief. Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye, the army chief, also saw a need to contain Khin Nyunt.

Than Shwe didn’t confront Khin Nyunt directly, but made some surprise moves at the Defense Ministry to undermine his influence. Most importantly, he brought in a few new faces: Gen Shwe Mann, Gen Soe Win, Gen Myint Swe and Gen Ye Myint.

Shwe Mann was being groomed to take over the commander in chief position and Soe Win was to take charge of the intelligence department. Khin Nyunt suddenly felt the heat. He was now accused of underestimating the potential threat of “the enemy”—Aung San Suu Kyi.

For the first time since 2001, when Than Shwe placed Khin Nyunt’s mentor, former dictator Ne Win, under house arrest after his daughter and grandson were accused of plotting a coup, Khin Nyunt found himself precariously close to becoming yesterday’s man.

Than Shwe’s next move was to name Khin Nyunt prime minister. According to former military intelligence officers, both Than Shwe and Maung Aye then urged Khin Nyunt to hand over control of the OCMI to either Myint Swe or Ye Myint. Khin Nyunt refused.

News of the SPDC’s internal conflict began to leak to the foreign press through senior military intelligence officers. Foreign Minister Win Aung hinted to his Asean counterparts that there was a bitter power struggle among the top leadership.

According to Aung Lynn Htut, strong business and personal rivalries added to the political tensions. Khin Nyunt’s wife and her circle of friends used to refer to Than Shwe’s wife, Kyaing Kyaing, and her closest friends as the “uneducated wives club,” he said.

Corruption was another key issue. Cases were being built targeting the spy chief. Several of his subordinates were arrested in northern Burma on corruption charges. Khin Nyunt’s name was also implicated when the authorities seized a fishing boat in Mergui with 500 kg of heroin on board.

After returning from a trip to Singapore in September 2003, Khin Nyunt had a heated argument with Than Shwe at the Defense Ministry and offered to resign. But Than Shwe told him he had a new assignment to offer him.

In October, Khin Nyunt called a secret meeting with his top intelligence officers and ordered them to provide documents as evidence of corruption against Than Shwe and top army leaders. Shwe Mann heard about the meeting and immediately informed Than Shwe.

On his way back from a trip to Mandalay, Khin Nyunt was arrested and charged with corruption and insubordination.

The regional commanders and army officers who believed that Khin Nyunt was building a state within a state hailed the purge. In fact, Than Shwe succeeded not only in consolidating his power base but also in gaining even more support within the armed forces.

“The army all hated us [the intelligence unit] because we had information about them, and even I, as a major, could reprimand a regional commander,” said Aung Lynn Htut.

The mission to win hearts and minds was over. Asean, China and Khin Nyunt’s allies in the West and the UN were disappointed to see the “moderate force” arrested and locked up.

Than Shwe did not want to release Suu Kyi, although secret negotiations between her and the regime were resumed just before the government revived its National Convention in December 2004. Suu Kyi, in a spirit of compromise, even sent a letter to Than Shwe to show that she bore no grudges over the Depayin ambush.

During these meetings, Suu Kyi and her party leaders agreed to return to the convention if the regime released her.

Aung Lynn Htut, who was still in Washington at this time, received daily phone calls from Rangoon. He was told that it was almost 95 percent certain that the NLD was going back to the convention. At the last minute, however, the deal fell through. Than Shwe did not keep his promise to free the iconic pro-democracy leader.

Ironically, it was Khin Nyunt who had announced, in August 2003, that the National Convention would be resumed as part of a seven-step “road map” to “disciplined democracy.” Now, however, he and his family were under house arrest, and most of his closest subordinates—with the notable exceptions of Kyaw Win and Kyaw Thein—were serving long prison sentences.

Four years after the removal of Khin Nyunt and his entire secret police department, many in the armed forces still believe that he had a plan to stage a coup against Than Shwe and wanted to become commander in chief of the armed forces.

For Aung Lynn Htut, his former boss’s downfall spelled the end of his career in military intelligence. In March 2005, he sought asylum in the US.

Since then, he has been an outspoken critic of Than Shwe. Through overseas Burmese radio stations, he has called on the junta leader to step down and urged soldiers to remove him from power.

Aung Lynn Htut said he believed that many senior intelligence officers who are now in prison felt the same way.

Referring to the pro-democracy movement, he said, “We wanted to see the revolution succeed.”

Trade Trumps Human Rights

OCTOBER, 2008 - VOLUME 16 NO.10
The Irrawaddy News

Many countries have shown more interest in trading with Asean than in taking Burma’s generals to task for trampling on citizens’ basic rights

BANGKOK — THE more pressing needs of economic growth in East Asia appear to be overriding the issue of pressuring the Burmese military junta to reform.

Economic giants China and India are on the verge of finalizing free trade agreements (FTAs) with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), to which Burma belongs, while both Australia and New Zealand have just formed closer trade pacts with the bloc.

None of these countries’ governments has raised a murmur of disquiet with Asean about deals which could benefit a regime widely reviled and sanctioned by many Western countries.

The pacts—just signed or expected to be finalized by the end of this year—will give the Burmese regime and the supportive domestic monopoly businesses which operate under its banner unfettered access to a combined market of around 2.8 billion people.

“With this prospect in sight there is little wonder that the Burmese ruling generals pay little heed to the financial and trade sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union,” said a trade official at a European embassy in Bangkok, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The US and the EU both recently tightened sanctions in a bid to persuade the generals to promote democratic reforms in the wake of last year’s street protests, which were violently suppressed by security forces.

Asean pursues a policy of noninterference in the political affairs of member states, even though the 10-country organization has declared ambitions to emulate the EU by 2015—copying Europe’s single market, unfettered labor movement and human rights code.

Asean’s code is currently being formulated, but the Burmese regime has already signaled it will not tolerate any outside interference on issues of rights and pro-democracy politics.

Ironically, it is the EU which is baulking at Asean hopes to reach an FTA between the two blocs.

Primary conditions for countries joining the EU include democratic institutions, an independent judiciary and adherence to human rights arbitrated by the European Court of Justice.

While Asean concluded deals with Australia and New Zealand and trade negotiations progressed with India, the group’s secretary-general, Surin Pitsuwan, admitted that similar negotiations with the EU had become “most challenging.”

“Because of the diversity on both sides, the two sides are working very hard trying to find some common ground to move forward,” he said.

In keeping with the lack of frankness within Asean, Surin refused to specify what the “diversity” of opinion is.

But the European embassy official who spoke to The Irrawaddy was in no doubt what it meant: “The EU is trying, without much success, to persuade Asean to put pressure on the Burmese military to reform.”

One of Southeast Asia’s leading observers and analysts of Asean, Singapore Institute of International Affairs Chairman Simon Tay, told The Irrawaddy he believed it could be possible for the two sides to agree on an FTA, albeit one without Burma.

“There is a precedent for this in the Asean-Korea FTA, where the rest signed without Thailand. The draft Asean Charter also sets out the Asean minus X formula for economic agreements,” Tay said.

“The question is one of political will on both sides. In the Thai-Korea case, there were substantial differences between the two on economic-trade issues. Here, it is a political-human rights difference.

“Economically, Myanmar [Burma] would be of little concern to the EU. Indeed, there would be opportunities for Myanmar to develop and for the EU to benefit from its resource base. But there are often mixed questions, for example illegal logging, allegations of forced labor to build infrastructure, etc.”

The latest batch of outside trade pacts with Asean has not gone through without some opposition, however.

In New Zealand, the pro-worker Alliance Party sharply criticized the Wellington government for signing a trade agreement which included Burma.

It heightened the likelihood that New Zealanders would end up buying commodities “produced by slave labor in Myanmar,” said the party in a statement.

The Asean-New Zealand FTA was a “model of how free trade and free markets can operate more successfully without democracy, trade unions or basic humanity,” the Alliance Party concluded.

But the New Zealand government has described the Asean deal as “critical to New Zealand’s longer-term strategic engagement”—a sentiment echoed by Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

“Some criticize Asean for being insufficiently activist. I argue that this criticism is misplaced because it fails to appreciate that Asean’s great success has been to avoid conflict among member states and allow economic progress unimpeded,” Rudd said in a recent speech in Singapore.

In any case, he visualizes a much bigger entity than Asean in calling for an Asia-Pacific Community.

Final agreement on FTA deals with China and India are expected to be signed at the Asean leaders’ summit scheduled for Bangkok in December.

China has become Burma’s third-largest individual trading partner, after Thailand and Singapore. Unwilling to miss out on Burma’s natural resources, India has also stepped up commercial deals with the generals.

As if to underline its indifference towards trade sanctions by Europe and North America, the Burmese junta is steadily expanding business ties not only with neighbors large and small, but also with other countries well beyond Southeast Asia where human rights do not figure in decision-making. The latest are Kuwait and North Korea.

Although the EU’s trade with Burma has shrunk because of sanctions, the European Community is an important market for Asean as a whole.

“If the overall deal is not so sweet, and the EU gets on a moral high horse, I can see that Asean unity will be evoked,” said Tay. “Seeing who blinks will become a game, which, while intriguing, would do little to deal with the real issues.”

For Greener Pastures

OCTOBER, 2008 - VOLUME 16 NO.10
The Irrawaddy News

With few opportunities at home, many young Burmese look overseas for work. But before migrants can earn a dollar abroad they have to face queues, fees, bribes and sometimes danger

RANGOON — EARLY each morning a crowd of young men and women gathers in front of an imposing building on Pansodan Street in central Rangoon.

They look nervous, and they sweat in the heat as they huddle together waiting for the door to open. Security guards scold them for pushing and shout at them to be patient.

This could be a scene outside a charity foundation, with hapless refugees struggling to get their hands on food rations.

In fact, the building is Burma’s passport office. And the teeming crowd is made up of people who have come to Rangoon from across the country to try to get a passport so they can go abroad and work.

“About 1,000 people swarm outside our building every morning from Monday to Friday,” an officer at the Myanmar Passport Issuing Office told The Irrawaddy.

Most of the applicants are between 18 and 38—about two-thirds are male. Currently, the passport office is issuing some 8,000 to 10,000 Burmese passports per month, with an average waiting time of 40 days.

The anxious crowd at the passport office is yet another reminder of the dire socio-economic crisis in Burma.

With unemployment rife, the cost of living rising and few doors of opportunity open, Burmese have been leaving the country in droves over the past few years. A migrant labor organization based in Thailand estimates that as much as 10 percent of Burma’s 55 million population is now working abroad.

Burma was already an economic basket case before August 2007 when a 100 to 500 percent hike in the retail price of fuel pushed inflation even higher. The cost of basic household commodities and staple foods leapt in price and sparked last year’s anti-government uprising with Buddhist monks leading the calls for political and economic change.

But their pleas fell on deaf ears.

Then, on May 2-3, Cyclone Nargis wrought havoc on the rice-producing Irrawaddy delta, killing thousands, uprooting families and causing widespread food shortages. An exodus to work overseas followed.

“Most of the young people in my village have gone to Malaysia,” 32-year-old Hla Soe told The Irrawaddy. He said that he and 10 others from the village of Kone Gyi in Magwe Division had come to Rangoon to apply for passports. They planned to join their fellow villagers working in a factory in Malaysia.

Hla Soe said that their village was rich in groundnuts, sesame, beans and pulses, but without farm hands to work the fields much arable land had gone fallow.

Almost every laborer had left the area—the average daily wage of 1,500 to 2,000 kyat (US $1.20-1.60) being insufficient for survival, even in the fertile plains of central Burma.

“I will sell my house to finance a trip to Malaysia,” Hla Soe said. “I think most of the people who go there earn good money. Some of them can send home as much as 100,000 kyat ($80) a month!”

As the family breadwinner, Hla Soe said he is ready to go abroad as soon as he gets a passport. However, that process is fraught with exorbitant fees and frustrations.

“We’ll each have to pay at least 1.15 million kyat ($920) to an employment agency for arranging jobs and the trip to Malaysia,” said one of Hla Soe’s friends from Kone Gyi.

“My mother sold her farm to pay for my expenses,” he added. “I’ve already spent almost 100,000 kyat ($80) in the past 12 days.”

Kone Gyi is not the only village that has lost much of its workforce. Hundred of thousands of workers, from rural areas as well as urban districts, are now leaving the country—not with dreams of adventure and wealth, but just to earn enough to help their families survive.

The employment agencies in Rangoon welcome them with open arms.

According to several sources, the overseas employment agencies charge applicants 1.2 million kyat ($960) to arrange jobs and flights to Malaysia; 3.2 million kyat ($2,560) to Singapore; 1.2 million kyat ($960) to the United Arab Emirates; and as much as $11,000 to Japan—the fees reflect the amount of money migrants can expect to earn in each country.

In fact, because the export of Burmese labor is so lucrative, more than 100 private employment agencies have sprouted up in Rangoon alone.

However, even the entrepreneurs who run these employment agencies say they, in turn, are subjected to inflated fees and bureaucracy.

An agent in Kyauktada Township in central Rangoon, who spoke to The Irrawaddy on condition of anonymity, said: “If you want to set up an employment agency, you must first submit an application to the National Planning and Economic Development Ministry. If you get a license, you must then apply for another permit, this time from the Ministry of Labor.

“If you are granted a license to operate an agency, you have to pay an initial fee of 5 million kyat ($4,000) to the Labor Ministry. In total, you must spend about 20 to 25 million kyat ($16-$20,000) in office costs and bureaucratic expenses, including bribes to officials, to get started.”

All the licenses must be extended annually and hundreds of thousands of kyat in taxes have to paid to secure extensions, the agent said.

According to the manager of an employment agency in Tamwe Township, the only way to run a profitable business is to manipulate the accounts.

“The agency gets taxed for each worker it sends abroad,” he said. “If we subcontract 100 people, we write down seven in our books.”

Never far behind in the ways of manipulation and fraud, the Labor Ministry issued an order on June 6, 2008, stating that each overseas employment agency must account for no fewer than 300 workers per year. If not, its licenses would be revoked.

The Burmese junta benefits not only from charging these agencies fees and taxes, but has also set up its own overseas employment centers to take advantage of the mass migration.

Sources in Burma’s former capital said that two prominent government-run agencies, Shwe Innwa and Myanma Mahn, have been given monopolies to supply labor to markets in certain countries.

“If a worker wants to go to South Korea to work, he or she must register with the Shwe Innwa agency,” the executive director of a private agency said. “Shwe Innwa has an agreement with the South Korean Labor Ministry guaranteeing 2,000 Burmese workers a year.”

Not only are employment agencies taxed by the regime, but the workers themselves may have to pay tax into the Burmese government’s coffers, even though they are working for foreign employers and may be subject to pay tax in the host country too.

“If someone goes to Malaysia, they have to pay 50,000 kyat ($40) tax per month to the Burmese Labor Ministry,” a businessman close to the department said, adding that the tax was substantially higher for workers going to Japan and Singapore.

Burmese workers who cannot afford these costs often cross into neighboring countries illegally. An estimated 300 Burmese migrant workers are smuggled into Thailand every day.

Burma’s economic woes have been a boon to human traffickers, according to sources at the Thai-Burmese border.

Many travel to Thailand independently, simply walking through border crossings at Three Pagodas Pass, Mae Sai or Ranong. The most popular crossing point is the bridge to the Thai black market haven of Mae Sot, which is separated from the neighboring Burmese town of Myawaddy by the Moei River.

Migrants have easy access to Mae Sot because so many Burmese and Thais routinely cross the bridge to buy and sell goods on either side of the border. It costs 1,000 kyat ($0.80) to enter Thailand.

Nevertheless, many Burmese migrants wade through the river or paddle across on inflated inner tubes to avoid paying the fee.

Burma watchers estimate that many more migrants have gone to Thailand this year because of the destruction wrought by Cyclone Nargis.

“Normally, very few Burmese come to Thailand during the rainy season,” said Nai Lawi Mon, an ethnic Mon living in Sangkhlaburi. “But this year we are seeing a lot of people coming.”

It is estimated that there are more than one million Burmese migrants now living and working in Thailand, around half of whom are registered with the Thai Ministry of Labor.

The perils of illegal migration were highlighted in April when 54 Burmese migrants suffocated to death while being transported in a container truck from Ranong, near the southern Burmese border town of Kawthaung, to the Thai resort island of Phuket.

Although the tragedy prompted officials to step up efforts to stem the flow of illegal migrants into Thailand, Burmese laborers continue to make the trip, desperate to find jobs to support themselves and their families.

Those who travel through Thailand to find work in Malaysia or Singapore do so at great personal risk. There are numerous checkpoints along the way and migrants who get caught are often subjected to harassment, imprisonment and deportation.

While Thai officials appear to be doing little to prevent illegal immigration, the Burmese authorities have been carrying out a crackdown on their side of the border. A few months ago, a human trafficking ring was busted in Kawthaung.

Nevertheless, despite knowing the risks and hardships, more and more young Burmese are looking overseas for work.

A 23-year-old graduate of Dagon University in Rangoon found that his bachelor’s degree offered him few opportunities in his homeland. Eventually, he swallowed his pride and went to Malaysia to work in a factory.

“If I relied on my bachelor’s degree, I could starve,” he said. “At least I can feed myself here, working as a slave.”

Overseas jobs are not limited to men—recently more women have resorted to seeking work in foreign countries. Most head for Thailand and Malaysia and find themselves working in garment factories, assembling cell phones or sewing. In Malaysia, migrants can expect to earn 18 ringgit ($5.30) for a full day’s work.

Thandar Aung works in Singapore. She is one of an estimated 170,000 foreign maids in the country. A graduate of Rangoon University, Thandar said that maids in Singapore have to work seven days a week.

“My first employers didn’t even allow me to make a phone call,” she said. “They treated me like a slave. I worked 14 hours a day for $139 a month.” (JEG's: generous SP pays maids $0.33/hr - that is being fair and morally honest)

Inevitably, Burmese workers will continue to be exploited in foreign countries. However, as long as people are unable to earn a living in their own country, a percentage—mostly younger workers—will be drawn abroad. The subsequent brain drain and lack of labor at home will only add to Burma’s economic woes.

Additional reporting by Lawi Weng, Min Lwin and Yeni.

Time to Embrace the Truth

OCTOBER, 2008 - VOLUME 16 NO.10
The Irrawaddy News

The release last month of Burma’s longest-serving political prisoner, 79-year-old journalist Win Tin, must have briefly brightened up the restricted life of Aung San Suu Kyi, confined to her home for more than 13 of the past 19 years.

But, while more than 2,000 political prisoners remain behind bars, Win Tin’s newly won freedom is unlikely to have given her much hope that her ordeal would also soon be over.

Suu Kyi has described Win Tin as a “man of courage and integrity”—qualities these two champions of democracy share in equal measure.

In the eyes of Burma’s military regime, Win Tin was Suu Kyi’s “puppet master,” although he has rejected any suggestion that he was her mentor or the chief strategist of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).

His wholehearted engagement in the pro-democracy struggle, however, earned him 19 years of incarceration in Rangoon’s infamous Insein Prison, which ended on September 23 when he was freed along with at least seven other political detainees in an amnesty cynically described by the state media as an act of “loving kindness.”

The regime said the amnesty—which also gave freedom to nearly 9,000 convicted criminals—was part of its plan for a “peaceful modern discipline-flourishing democratic nation.” Its true purpose, however, was clearly to deflect international criticism at a critical time, as the country marked the first anniversary of the September 2007 uprising and as the spotlight again fell on Burma at a UN General Assembly session.

The UN record on Burma also came under scrutiny, as the UN’s “Group of Friends of Burma,” which includes the US, the EU, China and Southeast Asian countries, again called on the junta to release all its political prisoners and open talks with the opposition. There was talk of a return to Burma by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, whose missions so far have achieved virtually nothing.

For all his ineffectiveness, Gambari is the victim of a capricious regime, which has treated him like a whipping boy because of its outrage at what it sees as UN bias and international pressure.

Apart from this pressure, the impact of Cyclone Nargis has led many Burmese government officials to realize that change is long overdue.

It’s still far from clear, however, whether relief efforts being conducted by the Tripartite Core Group, consisting of representatives of the UN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the Burmese junta, are making any significant headway.

The group’s so-called experts, handling aid money from international donors, have naively come to believe that a “humanitarian space” has opened up in the country—with some international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs), UN agencies and regime apologists claiming that this presents a window of opportunity for the 2010 election.

The regime view of this is contained in the minutes of a briefing Home Affairs Minister Maung Oo received from Than Shwe in July, in which the UN and INGOs were described as “puppets” of the US and the CIA.

Maung Oo accused the relief organizations of providing aid to the victims “just for show,” alleging that they spent humanitarian aid money on themselves and not, through regime channels, on the cyclone victims.

The US, the UN and INGOs were also accused by the minister of pushing Burma to the top of their agendas.

If a “humanitarian space” has been opened up in the Irrawaddy delta it can be closed at any time because the regime retains the sole power to do so, at any time it chooses.

It’s the same power that enables the regime to suppress the truth and imprison those who venture to speak out. Under the brutal totalitarianism of Burma, telling the truth requires great courage and brings fearful consequences.

Win Tin and Suu Kyi are victims of this perverse power. So is the activist Nilar Thein, who was hunted for more than a year, separated from her infant daughter, before being found and jailed, like her husband, for her role in the September 2007 uprising.

The release of Win Tin and a handful of other political prisoners is welcome news, but it isn’t going to change the image of the Burmese regime while Suu Kyi, Nilar Thein and more than 2,000 other pro-democracy activists remain confined.

If Burma’s generals want to show the world that they are sincerely interested in improving the country’s repressive political climate, they should set a timeframe for the release of all these prisoners. They should also make their seven-step political “road map” more inclusive, giving freedom to all political stakeholders to participate in the process and sharing power with opposition forces who were elected in the 1990 election.

No one expects that to happen anytime soon.

But there is a general belief that it’s time for the UN and the international community to push the generals to accept the words of Win Tin: “We have always believed in solving problems through democratic dialogue.”

Than Shwe Delays Signing Election Law

By MIN LWIN - The Irrawaddy News

The head of the Burmese military regime, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, has still not approved the country’s election law, which authorizes an election in 2010 and the constitutional backing for the Burmese armed forces to retain at least 25 percent of parliamentary seats.

Sources within the Burmese military said that although the election law had been approved by the constitution process, it was still on Than Shwe’s desk waiting to be signed.

Win Min, a Burmese military analyst based in Thailand, said that Than Shwe will not authorize the document until closer to the election date.

Rumors are circulating in Naypyidaw and Rangoon that Than Shwe and his No 2, Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye, have argued recently about which officers would be given parliamentary seats and which would continue in military service.

Military sources said that Than Shwe is the key player in deciding which military officers run in the election.

Meanwhile, at the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, Burmese Foreign Minister Nyan Win said that the fifth step of the junta’s “road map”—a general election—will be completed in 2010 and that all necessary measures are being taken for the election.

He also said in his speech that all citizens, regardless of political affiliation, will have equal rights to form political parties and the government will make every effort to ensure that the election will be free and fair.

According to the constitution approved in May, 25 percent of the seats in the Burmese parliament will be reserved for members of the military, nominated by the Commander-in-Chief of the Burmese Defence Services.

Aung Kyaw Zaw, a Burmese military analyst living on the China-Burma border, said that Than Shwe wanted to keep his grip on power and was preparing to form a political party to compete in the 2010 election.

According to military sources, regional military commanders competed for Than Shwe’s approval during the constitutional referendum in May. The commanders were told that unless their regions produced a high percentage of Yes votes, they could find themselves “retired” or transferred to inactive positions.

Official figures concluded that more than 90 percent of the electorate voted “Yes” despite the process being labeled a “sham” by most observers.

Since Than Shwe seized power in 1992, he has relegated his colleagues and opponents ruthlessly if he suspected they were not loyal to him. In 2004, he purged former Prime Minister Gen Khin Nyunt and his supporters for disobeying him. Khin Nyunt has been under house arrest ever since.

Veteran NLD MP Arrested - Ohn Kyaing

The Irrawaddy News

Ohn Kyaing, a veteran Burmese journalist and elected MP who has already spent almost 15 years in prison for political activity, was arrested by the Special Intelligence Police Unit at 10 p.m. On Wednesday night at his home in Rangoon, according to a National League for Democracy (NLD) spokesman.

Ohn Kyaing, 64, is also the chairman of the NLD Cyclone Relief Committee and a member of the party’s organizing committee in Mandalay.

“We knew he was involved in cyclone relief activities,” said Nyan Win, a spokesman for the NLD. “But we don’t know why he was arrested.”

According to the NLD spokesman, Ohn Kyaing became actively involved in relief efforts for survivors of Cyclone Nargis, which swept the Irrawaddy delta on May 2-3, destroying homes and villages, and killing at least 134,000 people.

Ohn Kyaing graduated in journalism in 1972 and worked as the assistant editor then editor of Kyehmom (“The Mirror”), followed by positions at national newspapers Hanthawaddy and Botathang. He wrote under different pen names, such as Maung Chit Phwe, Aung Wint and Aung Tint.

Standing for the NLD in Mandalay in the 1990 election, Ohn Kyaing won a parliamentary seat in the party’s landslide victory. However, the Burmese military regime refused to recognize the result of the election.

Ohn Kyaing was imprisoned in September 1990 and sentenced to 17 years imprisonment for “writing and distributing seditious pamphlets and threatening state security.”

He was released on January 3, 2005, from Toungoo prison.

The Burmese military authorities have recently arrested several well-known social activists who were involved in relief efforts after Cyclone Nargis, including comedian Zarganar, journalist Zaw Thet Htwe and the chief editor of the Myanmar Tribune weekly journal, Aung Kyaw San.

Monk Escapes from Lantalang Prison

The Irrawaddy News

Photo: Ashin Pannasiri
A 28-year-old Burmese Buddhist monk, Ashin Pannasiri, has successfully escaped from Lantalang Prison in Chin State and arrived in Delhi, India, after 13 days.

Ashin Pannasiri said he climbed over two barbwire fences at about 1 am on September 16, when two security guards slept.

“When I climbed the posts, my hands and legs were scraped by barbwire. It was very painful, but I didn’t care about that,” he said. “I only cared about my life.”

In the days following his escape, he traveled alone and was unsure where the roads led. He survived by eating vegetables and fruit.

“I ate fruit wherever I found it the jungle, and I drank water from streams,” he said.

The monk crossed crossed into India at the Mizoram border. During the trip, he said he avoided local residents around Mizoram, fearing arrest and punishment.

“When they [local residents] saw me, they followed me,” he said. “I was afraid of them because I heard that strangers there can be killed or seriously punished if arrested.

Burmese authorities began searching for Ashin Pannasiri in late 2007 during the time of the civil uprising because of his close relationship with leading pro-democracy monks, including monk U Gambira, who is now in Insein Prison in Rangoon.

Ashin Pannasiri was affiliated with Yangon Monastery Maha Koe Su Taik in Pyigyitagun Township in Mandalay Division. When he learned he was wanted by authorities, he said he moved north to Monywa Township in Sagaing Division to escape arrest.

However, he was arrested on October 18, 2007, at an Internet shop in Monywa Township.

He said he was tortured by authorities, both physically and mentally, during interrogation.

“They [authorities] interrogated me from 18 through 20 October. They first asked me to stand up and squat repeatedly. They tied my hands behind my back and pushed and kicked me. They beat my face with an army boot when they asked each question.”

“Finally, I couldn’t control my mind, and there was no option for me. I thought about suicide,” he said.

On October 24, 2007, he was sent to Monywa Prison in Sagaing Division where he spent seven months. On January 18, 2008, he was sentenced to three years imprisonment. Authorities charged him with multiple offenses, including possession of illegal foreign currency.

In mid-May 2008, he was moved to Kale Prison in Sagaing Division where he spent a few weeks before being sent to Lantalang Prison.

On September 15, the day before he escaped from Lantalang, he was again questioned by authorities. He said that following the interrogation, he realized he would be sent back to Kale Prison with “double punishment,” convincing him he had no option but to try to escape.

Ashin Pannasiri is now staying with friends in Dehli. He said he plans to continue to struggle for freedom and peace in Burma while in exile.

“I want to urge all monks inside and outside Burma to fight against ah-dhamma (injustice) and maintain the dhamma (justice) policy,” he said.